Land of the flying roti

The food comes at breakneck speed, as does the traffic and conversation in Mumbai, writes Jean-Paul Pelosi.

New York City never sleeps; Mumbai never stops moving. From the moment you arrive, Mumbai's energy comes hurtling towards you like monsoonal rain. Its perpetual activity stuns the eye, charges the senses and leaves you spinning.

No time for questions just take a deep breath and jump right in.

Amid its endless haste, Mumbai is also a place of possibilities. A small dirt strip and a plank of wood by the roadside, for instance, can be the catalyst for a makeshift cricket match. A hole-in-the-wall vendor selling nothing more than fried potato can become the most popular dinner joint in town.

Meeting people, starting conversations and exchanging a friendly wave are all daily possibilities, too. There is genuine warmth among this massive population.

And if you're interested, there's potential for great photography as well. The colour of Linking Road, for example, fills my camera lens; grey, brown and dusty red backgrounds fade behind the yellows, greens, pinks, oranges and blues of passing life. It's a palette more intense and vibrant than most major cities; if you peel back one layer, you might reveal a hundred more. The prospect is overwhelming.

After a full day of shopping something Mumbaikars excel at we need a hearty local meal. Thakker's is a famous Gujarati restaurant noted for serving the best thali dinner in Mumbai. (Thali is a selection of dishes served in small bowls on a round tray).

The food comes at breakneck speed exotic, fragrant and fresh. All you can eat dahl, spiced vegetables, rice, chutneys, breads and sweets, it's an endless buffet brought right to our laps. Welcome to yum cha on speed!

But this is no place for chit-chat. Waiters, so efficient they seem to be on roller blades, load and reload our bowls faster than we can chew. The best conversation my wife and I can manage are smiles and nods between bites.

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I spot a break in the action but suddenly a hot roti flies from the oven and onto my tray. It doesn't matter desserts are on offer and my wife's too busy directing fruit custard toward her tray anyway.

About 10 minutes and $5 later, I need to loosen my belt. I'm told Thakker's has been wowing customers like this for 60 years. Who knew fast food could be so good and, well, fast?

After a drive around town, we stop at the Sharda Paan Shop in north Mumbai, right near Shivaji Park, one of the many ovals cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar has conquered.

Paan is a traditional digestive that can include tobacco, if you like, but we're here for the sweet version pieces of lolly, nuts, seeds, coconut and sugar wrapped in a beetle nut leaf.

The tiny shop is little more than a window in a wall. Three men in neat uniforms navigate the tight space expertly as they stuff leaves to the brim and take orders. A fourth man whips out pre-made paan from the fridge and pushes them across the counter. Customers jockey around the window like front row concert-goers, eager for a special vantage point.

It's disorganised but, like everything else in this city, it works. The service is good and the wait surprisingly short. I bite into my paan and absorb a rush of flavours. The filling is minty-sweet but the leaf is raw and earthy. It's a strangely refreshing combination.

Appropriately digested, we hop into the car and head over to Band Stand, in the atmospheric seafront suburb of Bandra. It's quiet at this time of night but during the day can swell with Bollywood obsessives, determined to get a glimpse of local celebrity residents. I imagine that's why the Shahrukh Khans of the world wear such big sunglasses.

The sea air is a delight after the day's humidity as we sip well-poured espresso and people-watch a worthwhile activity even at midnight. Couples stroll by, friends enjoy a late-night jog and others whiz past on scooters. A vendor looks on from behind a stainless steel grill, that resembles a timpani drum.

He speedily chops onions for his sev puri a savoury biscuit also topped with potato, chutney and flakes of fried flour. Any time is a good time for street eats here.

As my father-in-law drives us home, we see a man arduously wheeling a heavy fruit cart on foot. We stop beside him at the traffic lights and wind down the window.

"Thike?" my father-in-law asks, checking if the man is OK.

The vendor turns and reveals a smile as he wipes his brow. "Thike, thike," he says.

It occurs to me there's little time for questions in Mumbai because everyone's simply too busy embracing the moment.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies to Mumbai via Hong Kong from $1179 return. Qantas flies direct to Mumbai from $919 return.

Staying there

The JW Marriot and Hyatt Regency are noted for their five-star service. The YMCA (ymcabombay.com) and YWCA (ywcaic.info/cenintl.htm) are popular with budget travellers. For a handy guide to hotels, see mumbaihotels.net.

Eating there

Shree Thakker Bhojanalaya, 31 Dadyseth Agiary Lane, Kalbadevi, Mumbai. Sharda Paan Shop is a traditional paan vendor near the corner of Bhavani Shankar Road, Dadar (West), Mumbai.

Further information

See incredibleindia.org.

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